The Electoral College is one of America’s top political discussion topics, as well as how we pick our president every four years. Yet, it still isn’t very well understood by many. What is the Electoral College, and why do we even have it?
During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Founding Fathers were hashing out many issues – one of the most critical being selecting the nation’s president. Some wanted a flat-out popular vote. Others argued a popular vote was unfair, giving too much power to the big cities and leading to an easily manipulated election.
The U.S. Constitution clearly defines the role of individual presidential electors, collectively referred to as the Electoral College. Every four years, the Electoral College meets to vote for the president and vice president. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states that electors can’t be a member of Congress or hold federal office but left it up to individual states to figure out everything else.
There are currently 538 members:
- One for each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives.
- One for each of the 100 U.S. Senators.
- After the 23rd Amendment was ratified, the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) was granted three electors.
How Electors Are Selected
Every state appoints its electors according to its own laws. Typically, major political parties nominate party activists and officeholders, sometimes financial donors, and loyalists. Being one of 538 people certifying the presidential election is a high honor. And not just anyone can become an elector. The 14th Amendment, ratified after the US Civil War, states no one who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or given aid or comfort to its enemies” would ever be nominated to the lofty position.
Most state parties select their number of electors at the county, district, or state conventions. On Election Day, whoever wins the popular vote in the state typically gets all electors. But results are not certified until the electors meet on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.
The process of electing the president is usually smooth and transparent – but there have been exceptions. In some cases, electors go against the popular vote result in their state and vote for whoever they want. But faithless electors are few and far between, and usually they don’t vote for the other leading candidate so much as they break faith to make some statement or other. In the 2016 presidential election, ten electors tried to break with their state on the presidential ballot. Three of them were fined under faithless elector laws and either voted for who they were pledged to or were replaced. Of the remaining seven, three voted for Colin Powell, and one each voted for John Kasich, Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, and a Native American activist named Faith Spotted Eagle. The elector who voted for Faith Spotted Eagle, for example, had been pledged to Hillary Clinton but wanted to make a point about how Clinton had failed the Native Americans. Altogether, Clinton lost five electors, and Donald Trump lost two, but it was not nearly enough to change the election.
In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states do have the constitutional power to force electors to vote along with their popular vote. And although every state can prevent faithless electors, they are not required to do so.